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Passing for Spain
Cervantes and the Fictions of Identity
By Barbara Fuchs
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
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Passing and the Fictions of Spanish Identity
Given the various pressures of centralization, imperial ambition, and religious dissidence, the construction of national identity in early modern Spain was an enterprise fraught with difficulties. As a reaction to the peninsula's long-term occupation by Islam, and to bolster its claims to the New World, sixteenth-century Spain ostentatiously assumed the mantle of Defender of the Faith—main bastion of a beleaguered Catholicism and Christian nation par excellence. The conflation of the fall of Granada to the Catholic kings, the expulsion of the Jews, and Columbus's arrival in Hispaniola in 1492 served as a triple landmark on the road to consolidation and expansion. As Philip II's monarchy aligned itself with Counter-Reformation orthodoxy, the elaboration of a national myth based on a "pure" Christianity took on greater urgency. While the monarch promoted himself as champion of the true Church against heretics and infidels, a new vein of humanist historiography conveniently occluded Spain's Moorish past and touted an unchanging "Gothic" nation that stretched back to pre-Roman times.
It is important to underscore that this sense of early modern Spain as a homogeneous nation reunited through the Reconquista was a myth, challenged not only by the prominence of hybrid subjects, especially conversos, in many areas of public life but also by the many tensions between local allegiances and centralizing forces. The emphasis on a pure Christian genealogy was an early aspect of Spanish nation-formation—in Etienne Balibar's useful terms, an attempt to construct the "fictive ethnicity" that would hold together an "ideal nation." As Balibar argues,
The history of nations, beginning with our own, is always already presented to us in the form of a narrative which attributes to these entities the continuity of a subject. ... The illusion is twofold. It consists in believing that the generations which succeed one another over centuries on a reasonably stable territory, under a reasonably univocal designation, have handed down to each other an invariant substance. And it consists in believing that the process of development from which we select aspects retrospectively, so as to see ourselves as the culmination of that process, was the only one possible, that is, it represented a destiny.
Balibar emphasizes the deliberate selection and construction of an identity from the materials available in the historical longue durée. In the case of Spain, this process involved erasing all traces of Moorish and Jewish cultures to focus on an illusory ancestral Gothic nation as the substratum of early modern Spain.
The Spain I refer to here is a nation in the making—by no means a fully achieved nation-state, but instead a polity in the throes of centralization and modernization, struggling to base a strong state on an older sense of an ethnic or genealogical natio. The tension between the older and newer meanings of this nation—a term that Covarrubias succinctly (and tautologically) defines as "reyno o provincia estendida, como la nación española" (an extended kingdom or province, such as the Spanish nation)5—is precisely what concerns me here. Who belongs within the Spanish nation? And how are its limits to be determined?
Over the course of the sixteenth century, state and church gradually defined some of those limits by excluding descendants of Moors and Jews from positions of power within civil and religious institutions through the infamous estatutos de limpieza de sangre (blood purity statutes). While there is some disagreement among historians about the true breadth or import of the statutes, it is clear that the problems of limpieza loomed large in the culture's imagination. As critics from Américo Castro on have pointed out, a broad range of Spanish texts evince a pervasive anxiety about limpieza and its attendant distinctions. The possibility of making these distinctions depended on subjects being transparent and classifiable—as though past religious or ethnic affiliations really did equal a manifest physical difference. In fact, limpieza could not be so easily determined, because in pillorying or clearing individual subjects there were often larger interests at stake—economic considerations, tensions between regional structures and the monarchy's centralizing drive—as well as personal animosities. Furthermore, the subjects in question were often quite deliberately unreadable, and the categories in which they supposedly belonged were themselves problematized by their ambiguity. Despite the rampant stereotypes that attempted to pigeonhole Spain's Others and all the Golden Age jokes about big noses, pork products, and wine, religious identity in Counter-Reformation Spain was never really crystal clear. In the case of the Moriscos—the Moors who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada and were converted, often forcibly, to Christianity—the anxiety about the authenticity of their conversions and the impossibility of determining whether they were merely simulating their allegiance to Spain compounded the economic and political struggles over their allegiance. Over the course of the sixteenth century, the state passed a series of increasingly repressive laws against Moorish cultural practices aimed at erasing all traces of the Moriscos' ethnic identity. 7 These measures culminated with the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain (1609–14), a final attempt to rid Spain of a class of subjects whose perceived intractable difference—despite their actual assimilation—precluded their inclusion in the homogenized "ideal nation" imagined by Counter-Reformation orthodoxy.
In this book I address the representation of unreadable subjects in the pervasive scenes of "passing," or deliberate impersonation, in Cervantes's texts. I argue that his depictions of characters who effectively perform another gender or religion challenge the attempt to identify and categorize "proper" Spanish subjects. As these characters move between ostensibly disparate and impermeable categories—masculine and feminine, Moor and Christian, Turk and European—they call the categories themselves into question. Even as Spain becomes increasingly intolerant of ethnic and religious differences within its population, these literary scenes of passing suggest the impossibility of drawing rigid boundaries between often indistinguishable subjects. Cervantes's fictions thus present a challenge to the enterprise of national consolidation according to essentialized hierarchies. By reading backward from scenes of passing to the larger social text of Counter-Reformation Spain, I examine, first, the resistant fluidity of individual identity in the period and, second, the ways in which that fluidity undermines a collective identity based on exclusion and difference.
Normative, aristocratic male subjects in Counter-Reformation Spain staked their identity on two basic tenets: honra (honor) and limpieza de sangre (blood purity). The first depended largely on male valor and female chastity, as well as on stringent distinctions between classes. The second was based on equally trenchant distinctions between Old Christians—ostensibly untainted by Semitic blood—and New Christians—conversos and Moriscos who had recently converted to Christianity. Moreover, the two notions were interconnected: through the sustained equation of the East with effeminacy and of Semitic peoples with women, masculinity was erected into a crucial aspect of Spanish identity. As Josiah Blackmore and Gregory Hutcheson argue, limpieza de sangre and honra "are ultimately manifestations of the same master discourse, the conflation of notions of purity and orthodoxy into a reflexive impulse against the threat of racial, cultural, and sexual queerness (and the desires invoked by each)."
While these tenets were important for individual identity, they were equally crucial for the sense of a national self. Over the course of the sixteenth century, Spain attempted to construct a collective identity based on an ancestral devotion to Christianity—guaranteed by the erasure of the Jewish and Moorish taints—and a muscular defense of the faith. Just as individual identity was hardly experienced in an uncomplicated fashion, however, the incipient national identity was riddled with contradictions. What was an ostensibly homogeneous Spain to make of regional differences, highly influential converts, or its humbling military defeats as the champion of the true Church? The fractured nature of the emerging national identity suggests how literary depictions of confused boundaries and protean subjects might counter both the exclusionist version of Spain and the state's attempts at ethnic classification.
Cervantes's representations of passing present precisely such a challenge to the state's categorization of persons. I focus on Cervantes not only because of the central place his texts have occupied within the canon of Spanish letters but because they consistently engage the problems of the nascent Spanish nation. The historical context for Cervantes's literary career accounts in part for his complex treatment of passing. His production spans the period from the rebellion of the Moriscos in 1569 to their final expulsion from the peninsula in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. It thus coincides with the period of greatest anxiety over blood purity and the heightened operations of the Inquisition after the Council of Trent, as well as with the increasing displacement of Morisco populations within Spain and the larger Mediterranean area. This is also the period when the enormous domestic costs of maintaining Spain's empire become apparent and of widespread disillusion with Spain's imperial enterprise.
This vexed and conflicted polity is abundantly reflected in Cervantes's texts. Many apparently conventional scenes of cross-dressing are situated at the border of a highly unstable Spain, portrayed as a nation vulnerable to bandits, pirates, and other forms of lawlessness. In these scenes transvestism—in its etymological sense of "dressing across"—often signals not only gender indeterminacy but a far more territorial crossover between self and other, underscoring the porosity of national boundaries and the fragility of an identity predicated on masculinity and blood purity. Thus the traditional purview of transvestism or cross-dressing expands to reach across established categories of gender, religion, and nationality. I argue that Cervantes foregrounds passing as a way to question the fixity of cultural identity precisely in ambiguous episodes of rescued captives, renegades, escapes from the Moors, and so forth. Their identities veiled, even constructed, by disguise, the characters who pass complicate what it means to belong within Spain.
The power of cross-dressing (in this broader sense) to challenge an exclusionist version of Spain makes perfect sense when one considers the historical importance of dress to mark—or blur—identities. In her analysis of "fashioned subjectivity," Claire Sponsler reminds us that "clothing is a complex sign, one that is open to multiple and conflicting interpretations, interpretations often arrived at under the oversight of powerful and vested interests. Although clothing might seem to promise instant recognition of others, their social condition, and their relation to the viewer's self, it often leads to confusion, deception, and misrecognition as well." Sumptuary laws, such as those passed repeatedly in early modern Spain, attempted to control the disorder of dress by stipulating, for example, that only those who kept horses could wear silk. The ordinances were repeated over the course of the sixteenth century, voicing an acute concern over the expenses incurred for lavish dress. The last decree passed by Charles V complained of the many garments of brocade and cloth of gold "'allí en nuestra corte como fuera de ella'" (both within our court and outside of it), an excess "'que es causa de que muchos gasten sus haçiendas y hay mucha desorden y nuestros reinos se destruyen y empobrecen'" (that leads many to waste their property, and there is great disorder and our kingdoms are destroyed and impoverished). Ultimately, the sumptuary laws were insufficient to contain the mobility that clothing could afford.
In his dictionary, Covarrubias offers a definition of vestidura o vestido (clothing or dress) that evinces his anxiety over the categorizing of a national costume in a time of changing fashions and the muddling of class lines through sartorial excess:
Todas las naciones han usado vestiduras propias, distinguiéndose por ellas unas de otras; y muchas han conservado su hábito por gran tiempo. A los españoles en este caso nos han notado de livianos, porque mudamos traje y vestido fácilmente. Y assí el otro que se hazía loco, o lo era, andava hecho pedaços y traya al ombro un pedaço de paño, y preguntándole porqué no se hazía de vestir, respondía que esperava a ver en qué paravan los trajes. Solo los labradores, que no salen de sus aldeas, han durado más en conservar el traje antiguo, aunque ya esto también está estragado.... No es instituto mío tratar de reformaciones, pero notorio es el excesso de España en el vestir, porque un día de fiesta el oficial y su muger no se diferencian de la gente noble.
[All nations have had their own dress, which distinguishes them from others, and many have preserved their costume for a long time. In this regard, Spaniards have been noted as fickle, because we change habit and dress with such ease. And so a fellow who was mad or pretended to be, running around in rags with a cut of material over his shoulder, when asked why he did not have clothes made from it, would answer that he was waiting to see where fashion would end up. Only the peasants, who do not leave their towns, have kept the old costume for longer, but even this is now spoiled.... It is not my business to deal with reform, but the excess of dress in Spain is notorious: on a holiday, an official and his wife are indistinguishable from nobles.]
Whereas Covarrubias seems particularly concerned with the erasure, through dress, of national and class distinctions, Lope de Vega's El caballero de Olmedo (1620; The knight of Olmedo) longingly recalls fifteenth-century attempts to separate Jews and Moors from Christians by marking their clothing. The orthodox yearning for clear markers of difference where religion is concerned is projected backward, to the reign of Juan II (1406–54), who appears in the play mainly to proclaim the separation of Jews and Moors from Christians. This separation will be guaranteed, or so the play would have it, by clothing:
a manera de gabán traiga un tabardo el judío con una señal en él, y un verde capuz el moro. Tenga el cristiano el decoro que es justo: apártese dél; que con esto tendrán miedo los que su nobleza infaman
[For a cloak, let the Jew wear a tabard with a badge on it, and let the Moor wear a green cape. Let the Christian behave with the appropriate decorum by maintaining his distance from them, for this will strike fear into those who would slander his nobility.]
Strikingly, even as the king legislates the difference of Jews and Moors, he acknowledges the vulnerability of "proper" Christians to accusations of tainted blood.
Despite Lope's nostalgic evocation of sartorial difference, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries it was quite fashionable for Christian Spaniards to dress as Moors. Was this a perverse nostalgia for remnants of Islamic Spain? In some cases, as when a group of young dancers dressed a la morisca welcomed the future emperor Charles V on his first trip to Spain, Moorish attire paradoxically functioned as a sign of national identity—an identity predicated on the erasure of Spain's Moorish past. In a related fashion, Moorish dress was regularly adopted for ceremonial occasions such as the juegos de cañas—a jousting game of Moorish origin—or mock battles that celebrated victories over Moorish enemies. In these cases, ethnic cross-dressing and the performance of ersatz Moorishness contribute to the construction of a "fictive ethnicity" for Spain as a nation that has overcome Islam in part by fetishizing its visible manifestations in the context of ceremonial performances. As such, these performances enable the construction of identity by staging otherness. Yet Moorish or Moorish-derived dress was not only ceremonial; it was also often part of everyday attire, from headdresses (through the reign of Charles V) to women's undergarments. Ultimately, then, such attire marks the porosity between Moorish and Spanish identities and Christian Spain's sustained fascination with its own Moorish past—both phenomena that continued long after the fall of Granada. Evidently, the orthodox mania for ethnoreligious purity and the classification of subjects coexisted with an enduring enchantment with Islam and cultural crossovers. One of the clearest signs of this fascination is the genre of the novela morisca, from El Abencerraje (1561, 1562, 1565) to Ozmín y Daraja (1599). As critics repeatedly point out, despite their Moorish garb the protagonists of these fictions are often indistinguishable from the courtly knights and ladies of chivalric romance. While they might be read as Christians passing for Moors rather than as meaningful representations of Islamic subjects, they also introduce the chiasmic possibility that actual Moors could pass for Christians.
In a culture obsessed with identifying difference through outward signs, dress became a loaded marker of identity for all involved: if Christian Spaniards could playfully dress up as Moors, then the persecuted and ostracized Moriscos could also pass as "real" Spaniards. Given this historical context, Cervantes's depiction of characters who cross cultural boundaries through disguise—such as the Morisca Ana Félix, in Don Quijote, who dresses up as a corsair captain but proclaims her Christianity throughout—complicates the notion of essential differences between Spaniards and their others. The passing in these texts exposes the contradictions of Spanish policy over the course of the sixteenth century, from violent efforts to make the Moriscos abandon their cultural practices—rendering them, to all appearances, indistinguishable from Christians—to their ultimate banishment from Spain. Most important, passing challenges the very notion of a transparent, easily classified identity on which the state can rely for exclusionary purposes.
Excerpted from Passing for Spain by Barbara Fuchs. Copyright © 2003 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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